In many cases, the most important lessons we learn are the unexpected ones. If you had asked me three years ago if I would ever travel to Cambodia, I would have asked you right back, "Where is Cambodia?" Even after learning about Cambodia and deciding it was the perfect place for our service trip with Bright Light, I had no idea how impactful the trip would be on my life. Of the many things I learned while in Cambodia, what stood out to me the strongest was that small changes add up to big changes, and that no matter where someone comes from, they are always more similar to you than different.
After months of anticipation and a plane ride that felt equally as long, our group finally arrived at the Siem Reap Airport without knowing what to expect. In fact, that uncertainty about what lay ahead was the main reason why I wanted to go to Cambodia in the first place. After four years of Spanish class and an eco-service trip to Costa Rica, I felt pretty well versed in Latin culture and wanted something completely different. However, while driving from the airport, the first thing I noticed was how the tropical palm trees, luscious greenery, and small colorful homes lining the road were just like my memory of Costa Rica. As we got closer to the city, the second thing I noticed was how the six way traffic of trucks, motorcycles, and cattle wagons crammed onto a two lane road was like absolutely nothing I had seen before. Whether familiar or foreign, my first impressions assured me that I was going to love the trip.
After we reached our hotel there was not a dull moment on the trip. Our first activity was a hectic "Amazing Race" that took us through Siem Reap on tuk-tuks and immediately immersed us into the culture of the city. From then on, each day we would participate in a service project in the morning, go on a cultural excursion in the afternoon, and finish the day by helping teach English at the school of a local monastery.
The first project was particularly rewarding to me because it was a chance to see our hard work turn into something that will make a difference in someone's life. For this project we helped to put in a new water well on a rural family's property. I was excited to get started, but wasn't thrilled when I received the job of getting water from the murky pond to mix concrete. A local man who was also helping on the project must have noticed I wasn't sure about the pond and told me to take off my shoes. It wasn't exactly the suggestion I was looking for but I did it anyway and stepped right into the pond to fill a bucket full of water. As I continued to mix concrete, dig holes, and place fence posts I realized how I was no longer thinking about stepping on something sharp or getting my feet too dirty, instead I couldn't help but think how comfortable it was to not have shoes on in that moment. I also noticed that several of the locals helping on the project didn't have shoes on either. As we all sat and ate lunch together to admire the finished well, my dirty feet and I felt a strong connection to that place. Being one of many who helped to build one well in a rural Cambodian village seems like a small contribution. However, that small contribution helped to make a big difference in the lives of many people in that village. Additionally, because a water well is a sustainable improvement, it is still making a difference today.
The most challenging part about our trip was by far helping to teach English at the monastery school each night. The idea of teaching English was already a bit scary to me, but when you add on that we were going to be teaching it to Khmer speakers, it seems like more of a nightmare. Luckily for the students, our only job was to assist in the pronunciation of English words. This still was no walk in the park, as the sounds of the Khmer and English languages are completely different. My nerves quickly faded each time I saw a student figure out the correct pronunciation of a sentence.
The important part of the teaching activity to me was when we got to split into smaller groups with the students. There were students of ages ranging from six years old to thirty years old. The first day I had a small group of younger children. I went around in a circle asking each one a question about their hobbies or family in order for them to practice their English. This was a cool moment for me because I noticed how the interaction of the kids was exactly how small group discussions used to be when I was in elementary school. Without a doubt, my favorite part about our time at the school was of course playing soccer with the students after class. Sports are the greatest way to make friends because competition has its own language that everyone in the world speaks no matter where you come from. As I started to talk to my soccer friends who were about the same age as me I was blown away by how good their English was. We communicated with ease and I found out that what they did, what they liked, and the type of people they were, was exactly like me. I always knew this about people but I never felt how real it was until that moment.
Cambodia is definitely one of my favorite places I've been to in my life. Not only did I have fun everyday, but I also learned about myself and how I can continue to feel connected with the world.